Posted on Jul 1, 1996

Captain Isaac Jackson

One of the most common sights of any Reunion is to see alumni strolling across campus pointing out the sights to trailing spouses, children, and even grandchildren.

“Here's where we had mandatory chapel;” they say, leading their entourage into Memorial Chapel.

Or, “Here's where I stayed up all night finishing my thesis;” as they explore the nooks and crannies on the top floor of Schaffer Library.

Finally, they come to Jackson's Garden, as everyone does sooner or later. Here the comments are apt to assume a softer tone. There's something about these eight acres that says “sanctuary,” or perhaps “village green;” in the midst of activity. If you see students throwing a frisbee or talking in groups elsewhere on campus, here you're likely to see an individual studying quietly.

The history of this 160-year-old garden is the subject of a fascinating exhibit on display in the Mandeville Gallery of the Nott Memorial. The exhibit was put together by David J. Miller, a landscape designer and planner from Needham, Mass., who was hired by the College (with support from a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts) to study the garden and make suggestions for improvements.

What follows are some highlights of the exhibit-and some things that you may not know about the history of Mr. Jackson's Garden.

Jackson's Garden is the oldest continuously cultivated garden on a college or university campus in the United States, and it's one of only a few public gardens in the country established by 1850 that has survived in its original location.

The garden is named for Isaac Jackson, a professor of mathematics at Union who began planting the garden in 1831supposedly at the urging of President Eliphalet Nott as a cure for dyspepsia.

In fact, the first era of garden development at the College dates to Nott's early years as president. Nott had a strong interest in developing a garden, and Joseph Jacques Ramee, the French architect hired to design the campus in 1813, made sure that his plans incorporated Nott's vision.

Ramee's concept-the first
documented use of a landscape gardening plan at a college in North America-included designs for planting along Hans Groot's Kill, the stream that runs through the campus (an interesting fact about Hans Groot's Kill: The name is actually an amalgamation of two names-Hendrik
Hansen and Simon Groot, former owners of the land through which the stream runs).

Seventeen years after Ramee and Nott put their ideas on paper, Jackson began to carry out their plans for a formal garden. He was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener-so skillful, in fact, that Nott early on said to him, “Go on, Jackson, you can have all the ground you want.”

When Jackson began, he found “a few beds of poor flowers or vegetables and, adjoining them,
a rude, tangled vale,” according to one source.

In his forty-six year tenure as “Superintendent of the College Garden,” Jackson turned that into a ten-acre space that included formal gardens, a ceremonial amphitheater, fruit tree and shrub groves, and woodland.

Jackson had a “thorough awareness of species and gardening skills,” according to Miller, and he began receiving national recognition less than a decade after he started the gar
den. In the January, 1839, issue of the Magazine of Horticulture, editor Charles Hovey wrote, “Professor Jackson of Schenectady has one of the finest flower gardens in the country.”

Much of what has been learned about the garden was discovered through Jackson's
writing more than 1,100 pages in garden journals, diaries, and ledgers describing garden space names, construction techniques, plant and seed sources, material and labor expenses, family life, and current events. Some of these entries record the receipt of species from national horticulture centers during the 1830s, including the Botanic Garden and Nursery, the nursery of Andrew Jackson Dowling, and Linnean Garden and Nurseries (the Hudson Valley was known as an early horticultural center in North America).

When Isaac Jackson died in 1877, his daughter, Julia Jackson Benedict, took over the care of the garden. Over the decades of her care, the formal garden matured into dense rows of shrubs and narrow rows of annual and perennial beds. Julia Jackson Benedict died in September of
1925, bringing to an end nearly a century of Jackson family stewardship.

John C. Van Voast, an 1887 Union graduate and Schenectady resident, took over garden responsibilities with “technical advice” provided by landscape architect Richard Schermerhorn. Under Van Voast's care, the Melius Conservatory was added, the walks designed by Jackson were maintained, a rose garden was planted, the Kappa Alpha gate and Delta Phi sun
dial were added, and an evergreen garden was planned.

In 1935, Marian Osgood Fox, wife of the College's twelfth president, Dixon Ryan Fox, assumed responsibility for the garden after Van Voast's death. Among her improvements, additions, and changes, the evergreen garden planned by Van Voast was planted. Fox's care of the garden ended when her husband died in 1945.

Since then, care of the garden has been in the hands of the College, with hired landscapers, such as Richard Lunieski, joined by “unofficial” gardeners such as Professors Gil Harlow and the late Bill Huntley. Perhaps the most noteworthy recent changes have come on the garden's periphery-construction of the Morton and Helen Yulman Theater, which overlooks the garden, and new dining facilities in what is now the Murray and Ruth Reamer Campus Center. The buildings provide a striking “frame” for the
eight-and-a-half-acre garden, which contains 500 shrubs and trees representing more than ninety-three species, mostly deciduous.

Perhaps the most serious
issue facing the garden's future is the flooding of Hans Groot's Kill. Stormwater run-off from both the city of Schenectady and the town of Niskayuna is collected in catch basin structures and piped to the creek. A recent study by an engineering firm outlined several measures to correct the problem, which has led to some erosion along the stream corridor through the garden.

When Isaac Jackson began his garden at Union in 1831, he was no stranger to traditions of horticulture. His grandfather, John Jackson, started a garden at Harmony Grove in Londongrove, Pa., which was recognized by 1777 as an important national botanic collection.

Isaac Wilbur Jackson was born Aug. 29, 1804, to William and Phebe Jackson. Isaac and his brother William were raised as Quakers in the town of Canterbury, N.Y. (now
Cornwall-on Hudson).

At age seventeen, Isaac traveled north to attend the Albany Academy, from where he graduated in 1824 with distinction in mathematics and classics. He came to Union, where he earned the rank of “captain” in the College Cadets, Company A (hence his nickname “Captain Jack”). Jackson was also a founding member of the Kappa Alpha Society, the first social fraternity on any American college campus.

After graduating in 1826 with distinction in the classics and first honors in math and chemistry, Jackson stayed at Union as
a tutor of math. He was promoted to professor of mathematics and philosophy in 1831. Jackson made a name for himself in the world of academia, receiving an honorary degree
from Hobart College and publishing several works, including, Elements of Conic
, An Elementary Treatise on Optics, An Elementary Treatise on
, and Elements of Trigonometry, Plane and Spherical.

Jackson married Elizabeth Pomeroy, of Pittsfield, Mass., in
1829. They moved into the North College faculty residence two years later, and stayed there for the rest of their lives, raising five children. Jackson was an active mentor and disciplinarian of residence hall students.

Jonathan Pearson, who kept a diary about the College through many years of the nineteenth century, described Jackson in 1845 as “a small excitable man, of tolerable health, and hard working and faithful in his duties. He is likewise Superintendent of the Botanical garden and during summer months spends much of his time there. We regard this beautiful spot as our only Lion at union and during the summer months it is much visited and praised by strangers from abroad.”

In July, 1877, Isaac Jackson died of a stroke. A service was held under the Nott Elm in the Garden, and he was buried in the family plot in Vale Cemetery in Schenectady.

Within the boundaries of Jackson's Garden are three smaller
gardens-the gifts of friends and alumni of Union.

The Robison Herb Garden was the gift of Ellis H. and Doris Robison. Ellis Robison, a Schenectady native, was the president and treasurer of John L. Thompson Sons & Co., the oldest wholesale drug firm in the United States. A graduate of Cornell University, he earned a master's degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree
from Albany College of Pharmacy in 1973.

He donated $70,000 in the 1970s to build an herb garden at Union (there is also a Robison Herb Garden at Cornell). The walls of the garden, made from Helderberg blue stone, encase more than 400 varieties of herbs-including herb teas, herb dyes, medicinal herbs, biblical herbs, and cooking herbs.

The Levine Flower Garden, in the southeast corner of Jackson's Garden, was given by Ronald Levine '55 and Liz Kanof Levine in memory of Sidney and Geraldine Levine. The garden has sixty varieties of shrubs, ferns, and woodland flowers.

A portion of Jackson's Garden has been designated the John C. Van Voast Evergreen
. A member of the Class of 1887, he was a Schenectady attorney and for many years the voluntary supervisor of Jackson's Garden. Many of the plantings there came from his own evergreen nursery. Funds for the memorial, created in 1936, were contributed by the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, of which he was a member.